The first time my little baby boy fell asleep at my breast, I was delighted. This tiny, pink-bellied bundle giving off soft snores while I cuddle him was my definition of heaven. Gradually every time he was tired or restless, I nursed him to sleep. Until that became a  dependency. No matter how tired my boy was, my boy needed breastfeeding to sleep. Imagine the chaos if we were travelling long distance, or I was busy, or extremely exhausted. Breastfeeding at odd hours of the night, month after month, pushed me to sleeplessness and exhaustion.

Read this post to know a few popular ways to make a baby sleep without feeding.

Why do babies sleep while feeding

When you nurse your baby, the warmth of your arms around him, and the security and comfort of your presence forms a cosy cocoon. Your heartbeat which is close to his ears offers a steady rhythm that can trigger drowsiness. The breast milk itself is loaded with sleep-inducing hormones that make the little one drift off to la la land [1][2]. No wonder almost every baby sleeps while feeding.

When to start disassociating feeding from sleeping

For a newborn, with no sleep or daytime pattern, it is best to go with the flow and feed on demand, day or night.

Usually, by the time a baby is  4 to 6 months old, he can sleep for few hours at a stretch and may even drop a feed or two at night. Also, around this age, the baby may show some pattern in waking and sleep cycle. Some experts recommend training a baby sleep without breastfeeding around this time (do remember, each baby may reach this stage at a different point).

Some experts believe that sleeping on own is a developmental milestone and each child reaches there when he or she is developmentally ready. But, a mother may not be able to take the exhaustion of feeding to sleep every time, over an extended period, due to various reasons like stress, exhaustion, illness, work commitment, etc.. So depending on your situation and your baby’s comfort you can decide a good time to start dissociating feeding from sleeping.

Remember, this is not the same as weaning. Your baby still needs your milk, just not as a trigger for sleeping.

Tips to make your baby sleep without breastfeeding

Babies are unbelievably hostile to change. So expect resistance. There are many tried and test methods circulating on mom chat-groups, paediatrician waiting rooms and baby websites. Just because one tip worked magically for one mother, doesn’t mean you’ll get lucky. Persistence is key — also lots of patience.

Here are some methods you could try:

1. The ‘baby steps’ approach

This method introduces certain cues into a baby’s sleep time routine when your baby is sleeping while breastfeeding. You can play gentle lullabies, use a rocking chair or offer a soft blanket or stuffed toy to hold. The baby learns to associate those cues with bedtime, and instinctually feels sleepy.

Once drowsy, place the baby in his bed and let him pass out naturally. If he gets fussy, pick him up, cuddle him and then put him back. With this slow, gentle process, you gradually reduce breastfeeding while the baby gets more comfortable with the sleep cues. This process could take weeks, even months. In my experience, using a rocking chair in a darkened room while playing soft music really helped with my daughter, but I had to wait until she was fully asleep before I put her in bed.

2. ‘Cry It Out’ method (CIO)

Though a controversial method, CIO is still a popular way to train babies to sleep without feeding. This method recommends that once a baby is 5 months old let him cry it out till he is able to fall asleep. You can’t pick up the baby and soothe him. Even when you feed him at night, don’t let him pass out on the breast.

It’s a difficult theory to practice. I tried the method on my son, and within 20 minutes of listening to him cry, I was ready to bawl myself. CIO is not for everyone. If your baby takes to it and starts sleeping without the breast immediately, that is fantastic. But don’t force your baby to go on crying indefinitely or for days like this. For a child, it can be a traumatic experience that instils a sense of abandonment. Also, if he learns to sleep without feeding, he may associate sleeping with a sense of fear or trauma.

There are gentler ways to achieve similar results without the drama.

3. Establish a routine

This is a gentle approach, where you create a fixed bedtime plan and carry it out every evening. You may breastfeed your baby, at the start of the routine but do not let him fall to sleep. The idea is to create a sleep-inducing environment by include winding down activities. Also, repeating the same activities every day will train your baby to calm down and prepare for bed. It worked for my son K. I would begin with a warm bath, followed by lying in bed and reading a favourite book. After that, it was lights out. And I sang softly till my son would sleep. Over time, this routine worked so well; he would pass out in the middle of reading ‘The cat in the hat’.

So, figure out a game plan that will work for you and your baby. This system can take weeks to months to master, but it works wonderfully even when the baby grows older. So power through it.

4. Let someone else take over

A father, grandparent, or nanny can step in to help you break the baby’s habit of nursing to sleep. When the caregiver provides a soothing environment, over time, a child will gradually adapt to sleep without demanding to breastfeed.

Your husband can take over the bedtime routine, while you get a much-needed respite. Besides, your absence can be the trigger the baby to finally sleep on his own. Again, you may feed your baby before handing over to the caregiver. On days I was too tired, my husband would rock our son to sleep. It took him longer than it would’ve taken me, but he was less exhausted by the routine than I was.

5. Take a car ride

Some babies find the steady motion of a moving car to be very soothing. A 15- minute ride on a traffic-less road is enough to knock them into a deep sleep. On nights when my son was teething or unbearably fussy, we would strap him into his car seat, take a long drive and come home with a blissfully sleeping child. If you are worried your baby is growing dependent on car rides, then only use this method in case of emergencies like painful teething or when the baby is overtired and refuses to sleep.

Key take aways about making baby sleep without breastfeeding

Adopt a gentle way to dissociate feeding from sleeping. Please remember that it is not same as weaning. It is just a way to train your baby to fall asleep without breastfeeding. If the advice mentioned above doesn’t work for you, tweak a method or combine it with another to suit your baby better. Expect some resistance. Remember following when you are training your baby to sleep without breastfeeding:

  • Adopt a gentle technique that works for you and your baby
  • Be gradual; start with one feed (daytime or nighttime) if baby resists the change
  • Create an environment to induce sleep
  • Be patient and persistent

 Eventually, your baby will stop depending on breastfeeding to sleep.